top of page
  • Writer's pictureJessica Chermak, CEP, LPC

College Tour Highlights: New York City & Philadelphia

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

As college counselors, we are asked frequently how we stay up-to-date on all of the changing pieces in the college admission landscape. Families are often surprised to hear that a huge portion of our professional development involves visiting colleges, attending their information sessions, and participating in official campus tours. Unfortunately, we don’t get VIP passes to secret admission meetings, but we do get a thorough understanding of schools by participating in the same tours families and students have access to.

So, while our students focused on AP, IB, and end of year exams, Sawyer and I were galavanting in New York City visiting colleges and universities in which our students expressed interest. We also presented at/attended a professional conference hosted by the Independent Educational Consultant Association in Philadelphia. Needless to say, May has been busy for us, too!

Disclaimer: The highlights of our college visits below are by no means exhaustive or all-encompassing. These are just some thoughts and notes about our experiences on the particular day of our visit and some facts we feel make each institution stand out.

Table of Contents:

  • New York City

    • Pace University

    • Marymount Manhattan College

    • The New School

    • Barnard College

    • Columbia University

    • New York University

    • Fordham University

  • Philadelphia

    • Drexel University

    • Bryn Mawr College

    • Haverford College

    • Villanova University


We started our NYC journey at Pace University. I had visited Pace several years ago, and was equally impressed this time around. Location-wise, Pace can’t be beat. There are two campuses, one in Westchester County and the other in Downtown Manhattan. The nursing program is located on the Westchester campus, and the performing arts programs are all located at the NYC campus, but all other majors can be completed on either campus (and courses can be taken across campuses, though it’s not the most convenient). If you’re looking for a more traditional campus (think green quads and suburban community), the Westchester campus is likely a better fit. If you’re comfortable and excited about the urban experience, Pace’s NYC campus may be what you’re looking for.

Pace was originally founded as a business school, so it comes as no surprise that their business programs are top-notch. What I found most compelling is much of the faculty is shared throughout other universities in NYC, including faculty from New York University and Columbia University. What makes Pace stand out above some of the other similar institutions is they keep class sizes small (fewer than 25 students), provide built-in academic support structures, foster an engaged faculty and student body, and provide bountiful opportunities for experiential learning.

If you’re interested in being in a large city, but are looking for a small school, Marymount Manhattan College deserves a solid look. They tout small class sizes, and an incredibly artistic and creative student body. We had a chance to peek into a dance class, where the students were deeply engaged and incredibly talented. Regardless of a student’s major, MMC has connections throughout NYC and beyond for internships and real-world experiences while still in college. Their two dorms/apartment buildings are about a 15-minute walk to campus, providing students with an opportunity to truly hone their independence. Also, MMC is located in the Upper East Side only a few city blocks away from Central Park. This school could be a great fit for a student who is looking to be a big fish in a small pond, or looking for a close-knit college community of creative thinkers.

As we neared the admissions building at The New School, Sawyer pointed out that the students had a very strong fashion sense. Most of the students we saw wandering in and out of the buildings appeared to emphasize their individuality and self-expression. I mention this because I think that holds true to the vast majority of the student body at The New School. Located on the same city blocks at New York University, and not far from Pace, The New School is in a prime location. It is most well-known for Parsons, its college of design where all students have access to Makers’ Studios (woodworking, 3D printing, fashion design and merchandising, etc.). According to our tour guide, a graduate of Parsons has created several red carpet outfits for Lady Gaga!

The New School doesn’t have a robust science curriculum in Eugene Lang (the College of Liberal Arts), so we wouldn’t advise any pre-med majors to attend. That being said, if you’re interested in the humanities and want to dabble in the creative arts, students in Lang can minor across all schools without a portfolio or audition requirement. But if you’re looking for hands-on learning and are interested in building a craft, while simultaneously bucking the traditional classroom education experience, The New School is worth a look!

Boy do I wish I had been more open-minded when I was a high school student applying to colleges. When I was 16/17, there was no way I would ever have considered attending or applying to a women’s college, and we know many students who fit the same mold I did. In retrospect, it’s a shame I didn’t look more closely at what these schools offer.

Firstly, it was wonderful to catch up with one of our students who was, at the time of our visit, wrapping up her first year at Barnard. It also didn’t hurt that Amy Schumer (yes, the Amy Schumer) popped into our tour to say hello as it was wrapping up. But given that these experiences aren’t really transferable to others, I’ll dive into what makes Barnard stand out.

Located in the Upper West Side (pretty close to Harlem), and situated directly across Broadway from Columbia University, Barnard is a beautiful seemingly hidden gem. The gated campus itself is very small, as is the student population by comparison to its bigger “brother” school across the street (Columbia didn’t admit female-identifying students until 1987) . Most of the buildings on campus have been newly renovated and the library is absolutely stunning. In fact, while Columbia has several incredible libraries on campus, it is not uncommon to find Columbia students studying in Barnard’s singular cozy, yet spacious, library. Barnard students are also allowed to share Columbia’s facilities, including registering for courses, participating in clubs, and eating in their dining halls. So while Barnard may be a small school composed of an incredibly diverse group of young female-identifying students, they have access to all of the amenities that a large school like Columbia has to offer. Female-identifying students who are academically gifted, intellectually curious, and interested in engaging in challenging discourse would do really well at Barnard. And while the academics are certainly tough, peer support is strong, encouraging, and engaging.

As most readers are likely aware, Columbia University is an Ivy League institution best known for its unmatched research endeavors in many fields and being one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the USA. With an incredibly low admission rate (<6% for the class of 2022), Columbia continues to build a class of some of the brightest young minds. They are home to 22 different libraries, and at the center of their academics is their “Core Curriculum.” This curriculum encompasses studies in literature, philosophy, music, history, art, and science. There is also a significant emphasis on skill-development and relationship-building throughout their education system, leading students to hone their skills in observation, analysis, and respectful discourse. Unlike many other highly selective institutions, Greek life is only representative of about a quarter of the student body. For highly academic and motivated students who are looking for a campus experience with access to a large city, it’s clear how Columbia continually inches its way to the top of many students’ college lists.

The Cooper Union is a very small and specialized institution in a number of ways. When we made our way over to Cooper Union, we could instantly point out which buildings were part of the school. Not surprisingly, The Cooper Union is well-known for its architecture program, but the art and engineering programs are also highly regarded. To be clear, these are the only degree program offerings, and the entire school consists of fewer than 900 undergraduate and graduate students combined. Important to note is that the dorms are apartment-style housing and there is no meal plan option. Students who are successful at The Cooper Union are self-sufficient, independently driven, and know how to cook (or at least learn fast)!

The background of the school’s development is as fascinating as the creative development that happens within the confines of its buildings. Not only was the school established to provide an exceptional education, it was also founded on the belief that education should be accessible to all. Until a few years ago, the school offered free tuition to all students who were admitted. They have since switched to a model offering half-tuition, but plan to be back to offering full-tuition by 2029. For students who are 100% sure they know they want to study architecture, engineering, or art, The Cooper Union can be an incredible experience.

What I didn’t mention in the blurb about The Cooper Union is the day we visited was rainy and gloomy. But at The Cooper Union, we were inside one building the entire time. The same cannot be said for our tour of NYU. For starters, New York City is NYU’s campus. The buildings are spread out over several city blocks (some are even located in other neighborhoods). It should also be noted that we were the only ones without an umbrella, and by the half-point of our tour, the rain was torrential and relentless. I mention this now because if you can visit a college on a day with terrible weather and still be excited about what you’re learning, that tends to be a sign you’re in the right place.

We’ve been on a lot of college tours (quite literally hundreds), and our NYU tour guide was one of the most engaging students I’ve had the pleasure of watching walk backwards. It was his final tour as a tour guide before his graduation at Yankee Stadium (where Taylor Swift gave the commencement address this year), so the experience was particularly salient and beautiful. I guess I’ll tell you a little bit about the school now.

NYU is well-known for many of their programs, including those at the Stern College of Business, the Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, and Tisch School of The Arts. Washington Square Park is generally considered to be part of NYU’s “campus” and there are always festivals and events happening. Despite the rain, the annual Strawberry Festival provided those patient enough to wait in line with several dozens of feet worth of (soggy) strawberry shortcake. I also learned that NYU owns the only private street left in New York City, and it is home to their language houses. Students at NYU are deeply engaged in their studies and exploring the city around them. I have a million things I can say about NYU, but I think it will be far more informative to hear from a current student. Check out our favorite intern’s blog about her experience this past year as a freshman in the Gallatin School for Individualized Studies!

Quite like Pace University, Fordham has offerings that can appeal to students who want an urban and/or suburban college experience. The Lincoln Center campus of Fordham sits across the street from the southern tip of Central Park, right in the heart of NYC. The larger, more populous campus is a gated oasis located in the Bronx. While there is a subway line about one mile from campus, the train station located directly next to campus will be more convenient and safer for students to travel into the city. Truthfully, the Rose Hill campus is arguably one of the most beautifully landscaped campuses I’ve seen in recent years, and due to the timing of our trip, students were taking full advantage of the lovely sunny weather on the campus’s main quads.

Fordham is well-known for its business programs, which are divided between the two campuses. The Lincoln Center campus only offers Global Business (with three different concentrations), while the Rose Hill campus offers the other business programs. Additionally, the performing arts majors are all housed at the Lincoln Center campus. The Rose Hill campus is also about 2/3rds larger than the Lincoln Center campus in terms of student population, and the latter maintains significantly more vertical real estate than the sprawling Rose Hill campus. Fordham is a great school and is easily accessible on public transportation, so it’s easy to enjoy everything NYC has to offer.


Up Next: Philadelphia

After almost two weeks in NYC touring colleges and universities, winning the Broadway lottery twice (Book of Mormon and Moulin Rouge!), and eating our way through the city, we made our way to Philadelphia just in time for our Drexel tour.

I’ve never been one to care much about a school’s mascot, but I very much appreciate the bronze statue of their representative Dragon that sits on campus. And campus is a strong word to use here, because the city is really Drexel’s campus. The school has grown immensely in the past decade and a half, and much of the campus bleeds into that of University of Pennsylvania (and vice versa). While the description may make it sound huge, Drexel is actually a very manageable campus and all facilities are within a comfortable walking distance.

Drexel is most well-known for its co-op program. Every student must complete at least one co-op, but students also have the opportunity to do three co-ops and graduate in five years. The phrase “five years” may shock parents, but they can be comforted in knowing that the cost of the degree is the same whether the student takes four or five years to graduate (they only bill for credits taken, not during the co-ops). One of the most profound selling points of the co-op program is that students apply and are matched with experiential opportunities in their field, which is great for students who love real-world applicability and hands-on learning. What’s more exciting is that over 80% of the co-ops are paid (a very comfortable stipend, typically around $18K for a six-month commitment), and if a student engages in a co-op that doesn’t pay, the school will help provide funds to students. It’s a fabulous school for creative and engaged students, and their creative facilities are absolutely worth taking advantage of. Some of their top programs include Engineering, Fashion Design, and Computer Science. The one thing students should keep in mind when considering Drexel is that they operate on a quarter system, and due to the duration of the co-ops, students really only have the first summer as a summer break, and the other summer quarters are spent taking courses.

Our original planned visit to Bryn Mawr was the same day as their graduation ceremony, so we wound up delaying until a week later, right before we left Philadelphia. While it would have been lovely to see the festivities and a bustling campus, it was also nice to see how serene the campus feels compared to the city. Bryn Mawr is a beautifully landscaped women’s liberal arts college (riddles with Adirondack chairs and hammocks for student’s to use) that is part of the Tri-College Consortium, which allows Mawrters to take classes, join clubs and organizations, and participate in student life at Haverford and Swarthmore. For example, there are several majors that are jointly offered (like linguistics), and students across the consortium have the opportunity to participate in performing arts groups together. And while this consortium already sounds pretty great, it’s important to note that Bryn Mawr is also part of the Quaker Consortium, which allows students to register for up to two classes per semester at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of the fun things we get to explore while visiting colleges is transportation. Bryn Mawr and Haverford share a shuttle that can take students to and from each campus. In addition to the shuttle, the SEPTA train down the street from Bryn Mawr provides easy access to Swarthmore and the heart of Philadelphia (Penn, internship opportunities, etc.). The campus feels very suburban, and there are several restaurants and shops within easy walking distance for students who don’t want to feel cooped up within the confines of the campus. The student body consists of very bright, engaged, and independent critical-thinkers, and the rigorous academics encourage conversation and cooperation.

We visit so many college campuses that they occasionally start to blend together. And while there are many similarities between Bryn Mawr’s campus and Haverford, there are also some unique and distinctive differences. Primarily, Haverford is a co-ed institution with considerably more acreage. But similar to Bryn Mawr, Haverford provides a rigorous academic environment with a supportive peer community. There are several sprawling outdoor spaces for students to enjoy when not in class, including a lovely lake at one of the entrances to campus. As soon as we stepped on campus, both Sawyer and I felt a campus-wide reverence for the beautiful nature surrounding the campus. During our visit to campus, we even ran into some students selling fresh produce and plants in one of Haverford’s many grassy quad-like spaces. Haverford’s most popular majors include social and hard sciences, computer science, and psychology. Their astronomy and astrophysics programs are also unique and exceptional.

I won’t belabor the incredible opportunities that exist for students by virtue of being part of the Tri-College Consortium (see above), but I will say that successful Haverford students find ways to engage on campus both inside and outside of the classroom, while also finding ways to engage within the community that surrounds them.

Our last campus visit of the trip was to Villanova University (about 1.5 miles from Bryn Mawr and 2.5 from Haverford). It is a school built on a foundation of intellectual, religious, and historical tradition. In fact, it is the only Augustinian University in the nation. The first word that comes to mind when asked to describe Villanova students is “nice,” followed by “service-oriented” and “socially-engaged.” The pillars of the community are Veritas, Unitas, Caritas (Truth, Unity, and Love). While the campus is easily navigable, students will find a vibe distinctly different from the castle-like buildings of Bryn Mawr or the naturesque surrounding of Haverford. The campus is sharp, clean, and feels more modern than the history of the university might suggest.

I was particularly drawn to the building that houses their business school, where some of Villanova’s most popular majors are offered. Villanova is also known for their accelerated dentistry and optometry programs, in addition to their extensive and hands-on engineering and nursing programs.

Good luck (but I know you won't need it),

Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP

Independent College Counselor

Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors

320 views0 comments


bottom of page